Let's Cut a Deal! (11.25.18)

Due to some technical issues, there is no audio for last Sunday’s sermon. Here’s a transcript!

A sermon on Genesis 15:1-11,17-21.

So, this is it! We’re at the end of our Genesis series. All through the fall, we’ve been looking at the opening chapters of Genesis together, and this is the last one. I’m sure at some point in the future we’ll come back and look at the rest of Genesis together—because we’re only at chapter 15 of 50. But for now, we’re moving on.

This has been a really fun series for me to teach—I hope it’s been fun for you to listen to and engage with as well. This series has been a mix of really familiar stories (the classics like Adam and Eve and Noah’s Ark) with some downright bizarre and problematic stories—the kind of stuff we usually ignore or skip over when talking about Genesis.

And this final story from the opening chapters of Genesis really ties things up quite nicely by combining a little something familiar with a little something bizarre.

If you grew up in church, or if you’re familiar with the Bible, you probably know something about God’s covenant with Abraham. It’s that classic story, when God tells Abraham to look up at the stars and promises that his descendants will be just as numerous. A lot of us know that story. We make cartoons for kids about that story.

Less familiar though, is what happens AFTER God tells Abraham to look up and count the stars. The actual covenant between God and Abraham—which takes the form of this strange, bloody ceremony, where Abraham takes a bunch of animals, cuts them in half, and then arranges the halves so that all the blood flows together in the center. That’s kind of a strange thing to do.

And we’re gonna get to that today—but first, let’s begin with the stars.

At the opening of our passage, Abraham—or Abram as he’s called at this point in the story—is having a crisis of faith. Last week, we looked at the call of Abraham in Genesis 12. And in that story, God called Abraham (at the age of 75) to leave behind everything he knows and venture out into a land that God would show him. And in return, God would not only give this elderly, childless man and heir, but God would make Abraham’s descendants into a great nation and use that nation to bless all the families of the earth.

By this point in the story, Genesis 15, it’s been years since that happened, and there’s still no heir. We don’t know quite how old Abraham is at this point, but we do find out in the very next chapter that he’s 85. So it’s probably been around 10 years that Abraham has been waiting on God to fulfill his promise. 10 years, getting older each and every day, with no sign of an heir, no sign of this promised nation of blessing.

So Abraham calls God out. He basically calls B.S. on the promise. This is a “show me the money” moment. “God, you made a promise to me and you haven’t delivered. I have no children, I’m 85 years old, and a slave of my household—one of my servants—is going to be my heir.”

Now, what’s really interesting here is: God doesn’t punish Abraham for this. God doesn’t chastise Abraham for calling him out, or punish him for his lack of faith. Instead, God gives Abraham a sign.

“Look at the stars. Count them if you can. That’s how numerous your descendants will be.” God is essentially telling Abraham: “I haven’t forgotten my deal with you. I’m still in this. And I will uphold my end of the bargain.”

Side Note: Abraham is remembered today as the father of our faith. Three of the major religions of our world—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—all trace their origin back to this guy. This is the model of our faith. Not blind acceptance. Not believing something without evidence. But an intimate relationship with God, built on trust and honesty. A relationship where we can be honest about our doubts and insecurities, and where sometimes that takes the form of saying: “Hey God, what gives? Are you with me, or not?”

If you’ve ever had a moment like this between you and God—where you weren’t sure if God was paying attention, or if God was even there at all—don’t let anyone tell you that that’s a lack of faith. That’s what faith looks like. Being honest with God about our insecurities and inviting God to prove us wrong.

Which, if we’re talking about insecurities, I’ve got one to add to the list—how do we know that this covenant between God and Abraham is gonna work out? How do we know that either partner is gonna hold up their end of the bargain?

“Covenant” is just a fancy word for an agreement or contract. Marriage is a covenant. In business, when two or more parties enter into an agreement with each other—that’s a covenant. And the thing that makes me question this whole covenant between God and Abraham is that we’ve seen this before. There have been at least two covenants between God and human beings so far in the book of Genesis and they’ve both fallen apart.

In the opening chapters of Genesis, God made a covenant with the first human beings—with Adam and his descendants. They were told to be fruitful and multiply. God put them in the Garden of Eden and told them to work the land. There was just this one tree they weren’t supposed to eat from.

And what happened? Yeah, Adam and Eve broke the covenant, they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the covenant was canceled.

Then, years later, after the flood, when Noah and his family get off the ark, God made another covenant with them. They were told to be fruitful and multiply. God gave them land, promised to be their God and to bless them. And then what happened?

Sin creeps back into the picture. Noah’s family is torn apart—Noah ends up cursing his own son. And within a few generations, human beings are at it again, united in rebellion against God.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice—or three times?

Abraham is worried that God won’t hold up his end of the bargain—but if God is smart, he should be worried about Abraham.

So what makes this latest covenant any different? We looked at this last week, but it’s worth looking at again. This is God’s promise to Abraham from Genesis 12.

All the familiar ingredients from the other covenants are repeated here: multiplication, blessing, the promise of land. So, how do we know that this covenant won’t fall apart? How do we know that God won’t cancel this agreement when Abraham and his descendants inevitably fall short?

Well, that brings us to this. [Show picture of the animals]. The part of the story where things get weird. I’m gonna read from Genesis 15, beginning in verse nine. And um, trigger warning for any vegetarians in the audience.

God said to Abram, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” Abram brought all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two.

This is a weird twist, right? Like, this is a really strange thing to do. Of course, if you carved a turkey this week… I dunno, maybe you can relate.

What’s happening here is totally foreign to us, but it would’ve been very familiar to the first audience of the story. This is an ancient covenant ceremony—we actually know about these from history.

In the ancient world, when two tribes were at war with each other, the war would eventually end, and then there’d be a covenant ceremony, like this one, to mark the end of hostilities. The kings of the two sides, and maybe the surviving generals, would come together for a banquet. But first, they’d have this little ceremony.

The representatives from the losing side would be tasked with providing the animals—usually the choice animals from their flocks—slaughtering them, and then cutting them in half. Often they’d have to dig some sort of a trench first. And then they’d take the halves of animals and put them on the sides of the trench, so that the blood would run down the middle.

Then, the losing side would take off their shoes and walk barefoot through the blood, while the winning watched. The symbolism is clear—if this covenant falls apart, if we fail to uphold our end of the bargain, the blood will be on us. We will suffer the same fate as these animals.

Then, the animals would be cooked, and the two sides would sit down to what—I imagine—was a pretty awkward banquet. I’m not really sure what you talk about after that.

If you’ve ever heard the phrase, “cutting a deal,” that’s where that language actually comes from. It’s derived from this ancient covenant ceremony, where two warring sides literally CUT a deal.

At this point in the story, God and humanity are essentially at war. We rebelled against God and lost. And Abraham is essentially acting as the representative of the human race. The fate of all the families on earth rests on him and his descendants.

So, when God tells Abraham to secure these animals, Abraham knows exactly what’s going on. God doesn’t have to give him any special instructions. He’s probably seen a ceremony like this before. He gets a cow, a goat, a ram, a couple of birds, cuts them up, lays the pieces across and lets the blood flow down the middle. But that’s when the story takes another surprising turn.

God shows up. God comes to Abraham in the form of a smoking pot and a flaming torch. And against all expectations, God passes between the animals. God walks barefoot through the blood. God is declares that, if things don’t work out this time, the blood will be on my head.

Now, for our Jewish friends, the symbolism here is all about the Exodus. When God led the Israelites out of Egypt, God took the form of a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night—so that’s where the smoking pot and the flaming torch fit in. This story became a source of hope for the Jewish people—revealing that God will die before he abandons them.

For Christians, the layers go even deeper. Because we believe that God actually did die to fulfill this promise.

Today is a special day in the church calendar. You might not know this, but as Christians, we actually have an alternative calendar—we have a way of marking time that is fundamentally different from the rest of the world. The world marks time based on seasons or the workweek, around market fluctuations and federal holidays. But in the church, we mark time around the life of Jesus.

We’re about to enter the season of Advent—a season of expectation leading up to the birth of Jesus. And Advent is actually the beginning of the church year, which makes today the last Sunday of the year—what Christians have historically called “Christ the King Sunday.”

In Christ, we serve a king who walks through the blood for us. A king who humbles himself—suffering with those who suffer, starving with those who starve, dying with those who die—in order to bring all things to new life.

The cross is Jesus’ coronation. It’s the fulfillment of a promise made thousands of years before to an elderly man with no heir.

You might be here today with some spiritual baggage. Maybe you’ve made to believe that God is angry with you, or that God has it out for you, or that God hates people like you. Maybe you’ve been following God for years, but that faith is beginning to waver. You’re not sure if God is really there anymore, and if he is, you’re afraid he might not be listening.

We all carry some sort of spiritual baggage. Whether you’re a Christian or not, whether you’ve been in church your whole life or if this is your first Sunday here—we’re all going through the same struggle. But this story is an invitation to take our fears and insecurities and lay them at the foot of the cross.

The God revealed in Jesus is the same God revealed to Abraham. A God who would die before he’d abandon us—a God who actually did die in order to save us. And a God who is in the business of bringing dead things to new life.

If you’re not already a Christian, I’d encourage you to make this Christ the King Sunday the day that you turn to God and acknowledge Jesus as your king. The only king I know of who gives his life for his subjects.

And if you’re already a Christian—which just means that you’re in the midst of the struggle, let’s be real—I’d encourage you to make this final Sunday of the church year, a day to reaffirm your faith in God, as we head into a new year of walking with Christ.

Let’s pray.

God, we thank you for the ways you show up in our lives and surprise us. For the ways you suffer with us, rejoice with us, and even die with us. We offer our lives to you God—just as you offered your life to us—and we affirm our allegiance to your Son as king. May we be faithful subjects who live out the call every day to suffer with those who suffer, mourn with those who mourn, live lives of sacrificial love, and be beacons of your love in our world.

We thank you, God, for all the amazing ways you’ve blessed us. And we pray this all in your name. Amen.